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Illinois moves to 9-0 with ugly victory against Western Carolina

Illinois' BrandPaul (3) dunks ball against Western Carolinduring first half their NCAA college basketball game Tuesday Dec. 4 2012 Champaign

Illinois' Brandon Paul (3) dunks the ball against Western Carolina during the first half of their NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Heather Coit)

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Updated: December 5, 2012 12:17AM

CHAMPAIGN — After starting the season with an NBA-like eight games in 20 days, No. 13 Illinois was edging toward a physical cliff.

Refreshed by a five-day break to rest up, the Illini figured to wale on Western Carolina on Tuesday.

That wasn’t the case, though. Illinois almost got harpooned before surviving the Catamounts 72-64 despite
a performance that was ragged in more ways than one.

‘‘It was a fight because I ripped my pants,’’ said Illini
coach John Groce, who dropped into a coaching stance too quickly for his threads. ‘‘I learned a lesson. I need to wear dark underwear. I apologize to the fans behind me.’’

For all its issues, Illinois made Groce the first basketball coach to win his first nine games at the school since Fletcher Lane was beating on YMCA teams during Christmas break in 1907.

‘‘I thought they were the tougher team for the bulk of the game,’’ Groce said of Western Carolina. ‘‘That’s disappointing. They did a lot of things better than us. We have to learn quickly that you have to play a complete 40-minute game. But as I said after the Gardner-Webb game, we’re not going to give it back. We made plays late in the game.’’

The unbeaten Illini (9-0) will have to play better when they travel to No. 10 Gonzaga on Saturday. And they will, Groce vowed.

‘‘We’ll learn from this,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re a learn-and-move organization. We learn from every circumstance. We’ll learn from this one and make sure we’re ready for Saturday’s game.’’

Sloppy stretches aside, Groce is looking like a very good teacher. In addition, the strong leaders on the team ought to remind everyone what can happen when the three-point shooting (7-for-24)
goes cold and the passing
becomes shaky.

Looking lackadaisical in far too many ways, Illinois ended up hanging on by a thread for virtually the whole second half. The Illini never trailed, but the Catamounts tied the score at 54 with 5:50 left.

Western Carolina (3-6) continued to lurk ominously, particularly because Illinois’ starting big men, Nnanna Egwu (8:37 left) and Tyler Griffey (7:15 left), picked up their fourth fouls with a long way to go.

That allowed the Catamounts to pound the ball inside a bit, but Tawasaki King, a 58 percent free-throw shooter, went 4-for-9 from the line. Western Carolina also committed 22 turnovers as the Illini dug in defensively.

Brandon Paul led Illinois’ attack with 14 points, and D.J. Richardson (13) and Tracy Abrams (10) were especially clutch down the stretch.

Give credit to the defense, which was solid. But the
Illini know they’ll need to play much more cohesively — the way they played earlier in the season — as they move along. Otherwise, there will be trouble ahead.

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